Mary Lillian Ellison (July 22, 1923 – November 2, 2007), better known by her ring name The Fabulous Moolah, was an American female professional wrestler. She began her career working with promoter Billy Wolfe and his wife, wrestler and trainer Mildred Burke, as well as working alongside professional wrestler "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers. She won the NWA World Women's Championship in 1956 and was the most prominent holder of the title for approximately the next thirty years.
In the 1980s, she joined the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) as part of the Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection storyline, feuding with Cyndi Lauper and Wendi Richter, the latter of whom defeated her for the WWF Women's Championship in 1984. Ellison was marketed by the WWF (later World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE) as holding the record for the longest title reign by any athlete in any professional sport. According to WWE, she was also the first WWF Women's Champion and held the title a total of four times.
In addition, Ellison was a prominent trainer and promoter in woman's professional wrestling. In the 1990s, she returned to the WWF in a comedic role with longtime friend Mae Young. Ellison became the oldest champion in the history of professional wrestling when she won the WWF Women's Championship at age 76, in 1999. In 2010, WWE recognized her as the 27th best wrestler ever.
Mary Lillian Ellison was born in 1923 in Tookiedoo, South Carolina, and grew up in Tookiedoo, twelve miles from Columbia. The youngest of thirteen children, Ellison was the only daughter of a part Cherokee father and an Irish mother. Her parents owned a farm, a grocery store, and a service station.
When her mother died of cancer aged forty, eight-year-old Ellison went to live with her paternal grandmother and worked on her cousin's cotton farm to make money. At age ten, Ellison was still deeply distraught over her mother’s death; to cheer her up, her father took her to the local wrestling matches. Ellison liked the matches, but it was not until she saw Women's Champion Mildred Burke wrestle that "they began to mean much more to me."
Ellison returned to the Columbia home of her father and brothers. She graduated Columbia High School, but at age fourteen married 21-year-old Walter Carroll. They soon became parents to a daughter. A few months after the birth of her daughter, she divorced Carroll. Still only fifteen, she left her daughter with a friend and set out on a wrestling career of her own.
Professional wrestling career
Early career (1940s–1950s)
Ellison began her wrestling career with Mildred Burke’s husband Billy Wolfe, the dominant women's promoter of the time. Her first match was on May 26, 1949 against June Byers at the Boston Arena. Wolfe was notorious for advising his wrestlers to enter into sexual relationships with either himself or competing promoters to ensure additional bookings, a practice with which Ellison refused to go along. She, however, soon began a romance with wrestler Johnny Long. Long later introduced Ellison to Jack Pfefer who gave her the moniker "Slave Girl Moolah". By the early 1950s, Moolah was a valet for "Nature Boy" Buddy Rogers, accompanying him to the ring while providing eye candy for the male audiences and assisting Rogers against his opponents. Ellison broke up the partnership because Rogers kept pushing her to begin a sexual relationship. She then served as the valet for the Elephant Boy (Tony Olivas). Olivas was Mexican, but had very dark skin, which caused controversy when Ellison, a white woman, would kiss him on the cheek during their ring entrance routine. At one show in Oklahoma City, a man, who thought that Olivas was a black man, attempted to stab Ellison with a knife for kissing him. Moolah later left Pfeffer's promotion and began wrestling under Boston promoters Tony Santos and Paul Bowser. In 1955, she began working for Vince McMahon, Sr.'s Capitol Wrestling Corporation.
World Champion (1956–1970s)
On September 18, 1956, Moolah defeated Judy Grable in a thirteen-woman battle royal to win the vacant World Women's Championship, which shares a lineage with the NWA World Women's Championship. She was not immediately recognized by everyone as the NWA Champion because Billy Wolfe, with whom she had had conflict earlier in her career, still controlled the promotion. After the match, Vince McMahon, Sr. dubbed Ellison with a new ring name—The Fabulous Moolah. Subsequently, June Byers came out of retirement to challenge Moolah to a match for the title. During the match, Moolah acted as the aggressor and pinned Byers to retain the championship. Moolah's first World Championship reign lasted over ten years. Moolah successfully defended the belt against the top female wrestlers in the world, such as Judy Grable and Donna Christanello, while also purporting to befriend some of the biggest celebrities of the day. Moolah claimed in her book, "First Goddess of the Squared Circle," that she formed friendships with Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.
After June Byers retired in 1964, Moolah was subsequently recognized as official NWA Champion, thus making her the undisputed Women’s World Champion. Nevertheless, Moolah dropped the belt on September 17, 1966 to Bette Boucher, although she regained the title just weeks later. She also traded the belt with Yukiko Tomoe during a tour of Japan in 1968. On July 1, 1972, Moolah became the first woman allowed to wrestle at Madison Square Garden, which had previously banned women's wrestling. In fact, Moolah helped overturn the ban on women's wrestling in the entire state of New York, which the New York State Athletic Commission lifted in June 1972. During her quest to overturn the ban, she flipped football player Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier onto his back on The Mike Douglas Show. Moolah continued an uninterrupted eight-year reign before losing to Sue Green at Madison Square Garden in 1976. Moolah regained her title a short time later. She also bought the legal rights to the championship in the late 1970s, and after losing the championship for two days to Evelyn Stevens in 1978, began another long reign, defending her title for another six years. Also in the 1970s, Moolah held the NWA Women's World Tag Team Championship twice with Toni Rose.
Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection (1980s)
In 1983, Vince McMahon, Jr. began expanding the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) nationally, and Moolah sold him the rights to her Women’s World Championship. Moolah agreed to appear exclusively for the WWF, and thus became the first WWF Women's Champion. The following year, singer Cyndi Lauper began a verbal feud with manager "Captain" Lou Albano, who long had a reputation of being a villain, that brought professional wrestling into mainstream culture in a storyline that became known as the "Rock 'n' Wrestling Connection." When it was finally time for Lauper and Albano to settle their differences in the ring, a match-up was scheduled with Albano representing Moolah against the challenge of Lauper’s protégé, Wendi Richter. After much buildup and hype, the Fabulous Moolah lost the championship when defeated by Richter, who had Lauper in her corner, on July 23, 1984 in the main event of The Brawl to End It All, which was broadcast live on MTV. Prior to the match, the WWF promoted Moolah as holding the championship for the previous 28 years.
After losing the title to Richter, Moolah aided Leilani Kai in defeating Richter for the title in February 1985. Richter won it back at the inaugural WrestleMania, but when Richter’s relationship soured with the WWF, Moolah donned a mask as "The Spider Lady" and regained the belt on November 25, 1985, in a controversial decision. Richter was never told she would be losing the title and fell victim to a real-life "screwjob" finish known as "The Original Screwjob". Richter promptly quit the WWF afterward, while Moolah continued to be champion for another two years—excluding a six-day reign by Velvet McIntyre during a tour of Australia in 1986—before losing the belt to Sherri Martel on July 24, 1987. She later captained a team at the inaugural Survivor Series. Her team (Moolah, Velvet McIntyre, Rockin' Robin, and the Jumping Bomb Angels) defeated champion Martel and her team (Leilani Kai, Judy Martin, Donna Christanello, and Dawn Marie).
Throughout the early 1990s, she made appearances in video packages and at live WWF events. On June 24, 1995, she was the first female wrestler to be inducted into the WWF Hall of Fame. In the late 1990s, Pat Patterson and Ellison began jokingly discussing a comeback for her, which resulted in Patterson contacting WWF Chairman Vince McMahon about the possibility. In 1998, Moolah and Mae Young re-emerged in the WWF (later renamed World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE). The WWF women's division, however, had since moved away from the traditional athletic match-ups of the past and now featured women competing in sexually-themed bikini contests and strip matches.
Moolah received a call from McMahon in late 1998 about returning to the company. On the September 9, 1999 episode of SmackDown!, Jeff Jarrett invited Moolah into the ring and smashed a guitar over her head. Moolah and Young then began appearing regularly in comedic roles. On the September 27, 1999 edition of Monday Night Raw, Moolah and Young defeated Ivory in a Handicapped Evening Gown match, which led to a title match at No Mercy on October 17, 1999. The match saw seventy-six-year-old Moolah defeat Ivory to regain the WWE Women's Championship, thus becoming a record-breaking 8 time and oldest WWE Women's Champion ever, though she lost the title to Ivory eight days later.
On the September 15, 2003 edition of Raw, Moolah won a match against Victoria. Moolah had been promised the match for her eightieth birthday and became the first octogenarian to compete in a WWE ring. After Moolah's victory, the "Legend Killer" Randy Orton came out and performed an RKO on her. Moolah and Young made another appearance at New Years Revolution in 2006, during a Bra and Panties Gauntlet match attacking Victoria and stripping her of her top. She also made brief appearances at WrestleMania 23 and the 2007 Draft Lottery on June 11, 2007. Her last WWE appearance before her death was at SummerSlam in August 2007, in a backstage segment with Vince McMahon and Raw General Manager William Regal.
Ellison's first husband was Walter Carroll, who became the father of her daughter Mary. Mary wrestled briefly but decided against pursuing the profession. Ellison had six grandchildren, five biological and one adopted. Ellison and Carroll divorced shortly after their daughter's birth. Later, Ellison married wrestler Johnny Long. Marital conflicts developed when Long wanted Ellison to be a housewife instead of a career woman. In addition, Ellison claims Long was a "womanizer". Ellison and Long divorced. Ellison also says that she dated country singer Hank Williams for four months in 1952. According to Ellison, Williams proposed to her, but Williams's drinking and heroin abuse forced the couple to go separate ways. She further claimed that he wanted Ellison to quit her wrestling career, which she did not want to do. Two months after the breakup, Williams died due to an overdose.
Later, Ellison met a wrestler named Buddy Lee, whom she claims was the "love of her life." They were eventually married, and after divorcing in 1970 after nine years of marriage, they remained friends until Lee's death in 1999. The divorce was attributed to Lee's affair with Rita Cortez, one of the wrestlers the duo was training. In the early 1980s, Ellison opened Moolah's Hideaway, a bar and grill which was operated by her daughter Mary and frequented by André the Giant.
Beginning in 1991, Ellison lived with Mae Young in a house in Columbia, South Carolina. Her estate was located on a road named Moolah Drive. A midget professional wrestler named Katie Glass also lived with Moolah for over forty years. Another wrestler, Donna Christanello, also lived with Ellison on-and-off for forty years, ending in May 1999.
During her return to the ring in 1999, Ellison began experiencing occasional dizziness, and as a result, her doctor requested that she begin to wear a heart monitor. A few days later, Ellison was admitted to the hospital for what turned out to be two clogged arteries and viral pneumonia. She stayed at the intensive-care unit of the hospital for 24 days, during which she was unconscious for fifteen days. After leaving the hospital, she again slipped into unconsciousness in the bathroom at her home, crushing several vertebrae. She underwent successful back surgery in mid-December.
Ellison died on November 2, 2007 at the age of 84. According to her daughter Mary, the possible cause of death was a heart attack or blood clot related to a recent shoulder replacement surgery.
Championships and accomplishments
- NWA World Women's Championship (5 times)
- JWPA Women's Champion